Linux Fu: User Space File Systems — Now For Windows, Too!

One of the nice things about the Unix philosophy that Linux inherited is that the filesystem is very modular. That’s good, too, because a typical system might want a choice of filesystems like ext4, reiserfs, btrfs, and even network systems like nfs. Besides that, there are fake file systems like /sys and /dev that help Linux make everything look like a file. The downside is that building a filesystem required changing the kernel or, at least, writing a loadable module. That’s not as hard as it sounds, but it is a little more difficult than writing a normal program. Then came FUSE — file system in user space. This is a single file system module that allows you to create new file systems by writing ordinary code.

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Raspberry Pi And ESP32-S2 Team Up For MutantC_V4

Back in 2019 we first came across the mutantC, an open source 3D printable Raspberry Pi handheld created by [rahmanshaber] that took more than a little inspiration from Sony’s VAIO ultra-mobile PCs (UMPCs) from the early 2000s. It was an impressive first effort, but it clearly had a long way to go before it could really be a practical mobile device.

Well after two years of development and three iterative versions of this Linux powered QWERTY slider, [rahmanshaber] is ready to show off the new and improved mutantC_v4. Outwardly it looks quite similar to the original version, with the notable addition of a tiny thumbstick and a pair of programmable buttons on the right side that can be used for input in addition to the touch screen. But inside it’s a whole other story, with so many changes and improvements that we hardly even know where to start.

Inside the mutantC_v4, showing off the ESP32-S2

Probably the most notable improvement is the addition of an ESP32-S2, specifically a bare ESP-12K module, to the main PCB. Previous versions of the hardware used an Arduino Pro Micro to interface with all the hardware, but the added horsepower of the ESP32 should come in handy with the array of sensors, controls, and NeoPixels that [rahmanshaber] has tasked the chip with. There’s even a buzzer and a coin-style vibration motor in there to provide some feedback to the user. While the board has changed significantly, it still retains compatibility with the Pi Zero, 2, 3, and 4.

Another notable addition is the expansion connector on the bottom of the handheld that has pins for I2C, UART, and 3.3 V. In the video below, [rahmanshaber] mentions that this feature was previously implemented with a standard 2×6 female header block, but is now using a far slimmer female USB-C port. We do wonder if it’s not a bit confusing to have this faux-USB port right next to the real one that’s actually used to charge the system, but with such cramped quarters occasionally you’ve got to make some tough decisions like that.

It’s quite inspiring to see how [rahmanshaber] has honed his skills since releasing the first version of the mutantC. The 3D printed parts and PCBs have matured considerably over the last two years, showing how quickly a dedicated hobbyist can advance their abilities. The most recent version has been entered in the 2021 Hackaday Prize. But the show isn’t over yet, as we hear v5 of this impressive handheld may tackle the Raspberry Pi 4 Compute Module.

Continue reading “Raspberry Pi And ESP32-S2 Team Up For MutantC_V4”

Linux Fu: Walk, Chew Gum

If you ever think about it, computers are exceedingly stupid. Even the most powerful CPU can’t do very much. However, it can do what it does very rapidly and repeatably. Computers are so fast, they can appear to do a lot of things at once, too and modern computers have multiple CPUs to further enhance their multitasking abilities. However, we often don’t write programs or shell scripts to take advantage of this. However, there’s no reason for this, as you’ll see.

Bash Support

It is surprisingly easy to get multiple processes running under Bash. For one thing, processes on either side of a pipe run together, and that’s probably the most common way shell scripts using multiprogramming. In other words, think about what happens if you write ls | more.

Under the old MSDOS system, the first program would run to completion, spooling its output to a temporary file. Then the second program will run, reading input from the same file. With Linux and most other modern operating systems, both programs will run together with the input of the second program connected to the first program’s output. Continue reading “Linux Fu: Walk, Chew Gum”

DOOM On A Desk Phone Is Just The Tip Of The Iceberg

These days we expect even the cheapest of burner smartphones to feature a multi-core processor, at least a gigabyte of RAM, and a Linux-based operating system. But obviously those sort of specs are unnecessary for an old school POTS desktop phone. Well, that’s what we thought. Then [Josh Max] wrote in to tell us about his adventures in hacking the CaptionCall, and now we’re eager to see what the community can do with root access on a surprisingly powerful Linux phone.

As the names implies, the CaptionCall is a desk phone with an LCD above the keypad that shows real-time captions. Anyone in the United States with hearing loss can get one of these phones for free from the government, so naturally they sell for peanuts on the second hand market. Well, at least they did. Then [Josh] had to go ahead and crack the root password for the ARMv7 i.MX6 powered phone, started poking around inside of its 4 GB of onboard NAND, and got the thing running DOOM.

Tapping into the serial port.

If you’re interested in the technical details, [Josh] has done a great job taking us step by step through his process. It’s a story that will be at least somewhat familiar to anyone who’s played around with embedded Linux devices, and unsurprisingly, starts with locating a serial port header on the PCB.

Finding the environment variables to pretty tightly locked down, he took the slow-route and dumped the phone’s firmware 80 characters at a time with U-Boot’s “memory display” command. Passing the recovered firmware image through binwalk and a password cracker got him the root credentials in short order, and from there, that serial port got a whole lot more useful.

[Josh] kicked the phone’s original UI to the curb, set up an ARM Debian Jessie chroot, and started working his way towards a fully functional Linux environment. With audio, video, and even keypad support secured, he was ready to boot up everyone’s favorite 1993 shooter. He’s been kind enough to share his work in a GitHub repository, and while it might not be a turn-key experience, all the pieces are here to fully bend the hardware to your will.

Historically, running DOOM on a new piece of hardware has been the harbinger of bigger and better things to come. With unfettered access to its Linux operating system up for grabs, we predict the CaptionCall is going to become a popular hacking target going forward, and we can’t wait to see it.

Linux Fu: The Windows X11 Connection

The life of a Linux user can be a bit difficult. Sometimes you have to — or want to — run Windows. Why Windows? Sometimes you have a work computer or a laptop that Linux doesn’t support well. Or it might be software. Although there are plenty of programs that can edit, say, Word documents, there’s always that one document that doesn’t quite translate correctly. Things like videoconferencing software sometimes works on Linux but might have fewer features.

So what do you do? You can dual boot, of course, but that’s not very handy. You can run Windows in a virtual machine if you have enough horsepower. There’s also Wine, but that often has its own set of problems with features and stability of complex programs. However, recent versions of Windows provide the Windows Subsystem for Linux (WSL).

With WSL, you can have most of what you like about Linux inside your Windows session. You just have to know how to set it up, and I’m going to show you one way that works for me with reasonably stable versions of Windows 10. Continue reading “Linux Fu: The Windows X11 Connection”

Classroom Surplus Becomes Linux Powerhouse

The SMART Response XE is a handheld computer that was originally sold for use in the classroom as a terminal for pupils taking tests. It’s now cheap enough on the surplus market to have become a target for experimenters, and we’ve seen them with a variety of cool hacks. We particularly like what [chmod775] has done with it, putting a VT100 terminal emulator on the device and hiding a NanoPi Neo Air single board computer in the battery bay. Powered from a USB battery bank, it gives a fully-featured Linux terminal in the palm of the hand. We see it running an Ubuntu LTSĀ  version, and it’s clear that it’s a functional and usable device.

This raises a more abstract question though: We’d guess comparatively few of us write software through an old-style dumb terminal, instead we’re more likely to get our terminal experience at a much more accomplished command line with all the conveniences of a modern desktop surrounding it. How many of us could comfortably return to the limited confines of a VT100 emulator on an odd-sized LCD display? We’d be interested to hear [chmod755]’s experiences using it, because if it retains usability it’s a device we wouldn’t mind having ourselves.

Hungry for more SMART Response XE hacks? Take a look at the BASIC computer, or the spectrum analyser.

WiFiWart Boots Linux, Moves To Next Design Phase

Over the last few months we’ve been keeping an eye on WiFiWart, an ambitious project to develop a Linux single-board computer (SBC) small enough to fit inside a USB wall charger. Developer [Walker] says the goal is to create an easily concealable “drop box” for penetration testing, giving security researchers a valuable foothold inside a target network from which to preform reconnaissance or launch attacks. Of course, we don’t need to tell Hackaday readers that there’s plenty of other things you can do with such a tiny open hardware Linux SBC.

Today we’re happy to report that [Walker] has gotten the first version of the board booted into Linux, though as you might expect given a project of this complexity, there were a few bumps along the way. From the single missing resistor that caused U-Boot to throw up an error to the finer points of compiling the kernel for an embedded board, the latest blog post he’s written up about his progress provides fascinating insight into the little gotchas of bringing up a SBC from scratch.

Once the board was booted into Linux, [Walker] started testing out different aspects of the system. A memory benchmark confirmed the finicky DDR3 RAM was working as expected, and he was able to load the kernel modules for the dual RTL8188 interfaces and connect to a network. While the two WiFi modules are currently hanging off the board’s full-sized USB ports, they will eventually be integrated into the PCB.

Critically, this prototype board is also allowing [Walker] to get an idea of what the energy consumption of the final hardware might be. Even at full tilt, this larger board doesn’t go over 500 mA at 5 VDC; so if he designs the power supply with a maximum output of 1 A, he should have a nice safety margin. As mentioned in the previous post, the plan is currently to put the PSU on its own board, which will allow more effective use of the charger’s internal volume.

With the software and hardware now largely locked in, [Walker] says his attention will be turned towards getting everything small enough to fit into the final form factor. This will certainly be the most challenging aspect of the project, but with a growing community of hackers and engineers lending their expertise to the cause, we’re confident the WiFiWart will soon be a reality.